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His Bride

His Bride by Gayle Callen
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Gwyneth Hall has heard the dark rumors about Sir Edmund Blackwell, the man she is betrothed to but has never seen. To save her penniless family from ruin, however, she would wed the devil himself. And this gorgeous, moody "devil" sends a tremor of excitement racing through her when first they meet -- sparking the young bride's determination to turn a marriage of mere convenience into much more.

Edmund dares never love again. Already wicked tongues falsely blame him for a crime he didn't commit. And while his exquisite new bride fills him with intense desire, their union is simply a means for him to retain his hard-won lands. Gwyneth is, after all, related to his despised enemy and therefore not to be trusted. But how long can Edmund resist the temptation of her luscious lips ... or her warm, sensuous touch?

HarperCollins; May 2009
384 pages; ISBN 9780061944727
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Title: His Bride
Author: Gayle Callen

Chapter One

One week later ...

"Gwyneth, we have news of the most excellent kind," said Earl Langston. "We have found you a husband."
Feeling suddenly light-headed, Gwyneth Hall tried to keep herself from gaping at him. "A husband, my lord?" He had never shown interest in helping her family -- his cousins -- before. Why now?
Stunned, she sat back in the cushioned chair and tried not to feel overwhelmed by the opulent withdrawing room in her cousin's London mansion. Painted angels hovered above her on the ceiling. Somber portraits of people she'd never met decorated the darkly paneled walls. While a timid maid served her spiced cider, the earl and his wife smiled like they were baring their teeth.
They'd only invited her to their home once, a few months ago, when they'd needed a companion for their daughter, Elizabeth, while her husband was out of the country. Gwyneth had accepted, glad to experience more of London than her poor corner of it. Instead of a companion, she had been an unpaid servant, seeing to her cousin's wardrobe. But Elizabeth was dead now, and Gwyneth had promised to keep the circumstances a secret. Was this offer of a husband a payment for her silence?
"How old are you now?" Lord Langston asked.
"I have three and twenty years."
"And I believe your father does not have dowries for his four daughters."
She saw the earl glance distastefully at her garments, knew her green woolen gown with its simple linen ruff at the neck might as well be rags to him. But besides her gloves, she wore a hat with a narrow brim that her mother had given her tilted at a smart angle. She felt proud of her appearance.
Her back stiffened as she lifted her chin. "My father works hard, Lord Langston, but he has grown sickly over the last several years."
"I understand, my dear. That is why I have taken it upon myself to provide you with a dowry."
She narrowed her gaze. "And why would you do this?"
She heard Lady Langston inhale with a hiss, and the earl's smile thinned.
"Because, girl," said Lady Langston, "we cannot give you in marriage to Edmund Blackwell without it."
Edmund Blackwell? The name echoed about in her head like a stone thrown down a rocky cliff.
"Elizabeth's husband?" she finally managed to say in a faint voice, though her tongue felt swollen. The husband her cousin had cried over?
The earl nodded. "He has an estate to run, and we feel that a wife will ease his burdens and provide companionship -- "
Gwyneth well remembered trying to start awkward conversations with Elizabeth. Once she had asked if hers was a love match, because she'd always thought the Langstons wanted to marry her to a nobleman. Elizabeth had only burst into angry tears and refused to discuss it.
"Elizabeth died but six weeks ago," she said in bewilderment. "He needs a wife this quickly?"
Lady Langston shook her head. "Do not think he agreed to it easily, girl. It is a difficult thing to lose such a woman as my daughter was. But he understands the reality of needing the dowry for his lands and a woman to run his household."
But of course he needed the money most of all; she could see that immediately. Such was the way of things in marriage. She had hoped it would be different for her, that she'd have a man to love and a family to care for.
And there was no saying she couldn't have that yet. She had spent her life learning how to be a good wife and had despaired of ever getting the chance -- until recently, that is, when a prosperous merchant had begun to court her. He was twice her age and had lecherous intentions, but he offered a gift of money that would bring her family back from the edge of poverty, and he had wanted no dowry, which in itself made him attractive to her family. She would be one less daughter to worry about feeding.
But Edmund Blackwell would offer no money. How would this help her family -- help her sisters with dowries?
Suddenly her hope soared as she glanced from the earl to his wife excitedly. "Forgive my curiosity, but does this mean you will be so kind as to offer my sisters dowries as well?"
Lady Langston gave her a frosty, knowing look, as if Gwyneth was begging for ownership of all of their estates. "Your mother is family. We are offering to ease her burdens by seeing one of her daughters settled. Is your greed so great that you demand more?"
Gwyneth felt the blood drain from her face. "My lady, you misunderstand me. I am grateful for this opportunity, and only wish to make my decision with all the facts available. I only ask that I might meet Sir Edmund before I decide."
"He has already returned north to Yorkshire because the grain harvest is well under way." The earl already seemed distracted, as if her concerns were unimportant.
"There is no choice, girl," said Lady Langston coldly. "He needs a wife, and we have already offered you to him. The marriage contract has been legally signed."
Gwyneth stared at her clenched fists, trying to quell her rising panic. The decision had been made without her. Did Sir Edmund leave so quickly because he did not want her to see him? She tried not to think about the cold, bitter tone of Elizabeth's voice whenever she spoke of him.
Yet she had been wishing desperately for another man to choose as her husband, because she soon would have been forced by her conscience to marry the merchant. Was an ugly stranger better than an old man whose odor often lingered after he had left the room?

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